By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Akil Mitchell saw the stat sheet from his first ACC start, one number stood out to him, and not in a good way.
In 25 minutes against Virginia Tech on Sunday night, Mitchell grabbed no defensive rebounds. His only rebound, in fact, came off a layup he missed in the second half of the Cavaliers’ 47-45 loss to the Hokies at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I know me, personally, I was a little nervous and it took a little longer to settle in,” Mitchell said.
The 6-8, 234-pound sophomore from Charlotte, N.C., expects more of himself, and his second ACC start went much better for Mitchell — and for 19th-ranked Virginia, which pulled away from Boston College for a 66-49 victory late Thursday night at JPJ.
In only 22 minutes, Mitchell totaled 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a blocked shot while shooting 4 of 7 from the floor and 2 for 2 from the line.
“He’s always had that in him,” said fifth-year senior Mike Scott, the Wahoos’ other frontcourt starter.
The key, Mitchell said, was “just settling in and not really thinking about my offense, just letting it fly.”
He impressed BC’s second-year coach. In his postgame remarks, Steve Donahue singled out Mitchell, whose previous high in an ACC game was 6 points.
“I think Akil Mitchell played very well,” Donahue said. “I thought he was really aggressive. I think they’re a much better basketball team when he’s attacking and not just being someone who’s trying to pass the ball out. I think Akil is a really good basketball player.”
Mitchell moved into the starting lineup after center Assane Sene, a 7-0 senior, suffered an ankle injury Jan. 19 against Georgia Tech. Sene underwent surgery the next day and isn’t likely to play again before early March.
In his absence, UVa has only three post players: the 6-8 Scott, Mitchell and 6-8 freshman Darion Atkins. Scott averages 16.6 points and 8.4 rebounds; Mitchell, 3.7 and 4.0; and Atkins, 3.0 and 2.8 rebounds.
All three distinguished themselves against Boston College. Scott, an ACC-player-of-the-year candidate, led the ‘Hoos with 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the floor. (He was 4 for 4 from the line on a night when UVa made all of its free throws.) Atkins came off the bench to contribute 6 points — his high in an ACC game — as well as 3 rebounds and a steal in 12 minutes.
Atkins’ baseline jumper with 5:47 left, off a pass from junior point guard Jontel Evans, started a game-ending 16-3 run for the Cavaliers.
“I thought Darion and Akil were solid,” Bennett said. “Darion bothered them defensively. They’re both active. They finished. Obviously they had a size advantage, and so Akil took advantage of that early on and had some plays right in front of the rim. And then Darion was just active. I think that’s Darion’s greatest strength. He has to continue to learn to keep pursuing and be continuous, but they both gave us nice lifts.”
Virginia’s frontcourt remains a work in progress as it adjusts to life without Sene, but it performed markedly better against BC than versus Virginia Tech. Scott was held to 10 points Sunday night, and Atkins didn’t score.
“We’re still trying to mesh, and hopefully we’re going to have better chemistry getting used to being without Assane,” Bennett said. “Darion and Akil showed that today, so I thought we were better with our chemistry and had a better feel playing the way we’re going to have to play for the majority of the year now.”
UVa, the ACC’s fifth-place team, plays Saturday night at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. At 8 o’clock, in a game that ESPN2 will televise, Virginia (3-2, 16-3) meets NC State (4-2, 15-6). The Wolfpack, which lost Thursday night to No. 7 North Carolina, is in its first season under Mark Gottfried.
“It’s a big game as far as our team,” Mitchell said. “As far as me personally, I’ve got, like, 10 people coming to the game. It’ll be good to see family and friends and to be back in North Carolina again.”
Bennett’s team is 6-2 away from JPJ this season. One of those losses was by two points to TCU on a neutral site in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The other was by three points to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Credit the Cavaliers’ rugged Pack Line defense for their success outside of Charlottesville.
“Our defense travels,” fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski said Thursday night. “The Pack defense kind of keeps us in a lot of games, and when we’re hitting offensively, then we’re going to be pretty tough to beat. Our defensive system is what travels well.”
Virginia, which destroyed Georgia Tech 70-38 on Jan. 19, is the first ACC team in the shot-clock era to hold three conference opponents in a row to fewer than 50 points. The ‘Hoos are allowing 50.1 points per game, the second-fewest in Division I.